Obama Seeks $3.7 Billion to Stem Immigration Surge

Obama Seeks $3.7 Billion to Stem Immigration Surge

By Alexis Simendinger - July 8, 2014

“Stem the tide.”

That’s the phrase the Obama administration is using to describe why it is asking Congress to help fast-track the expulsion of migrant children apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border.

President Obama on Tuesday requested an additional $3.7 billion for the fiscal year that ends in September, arguing that additional resources are necessary to discourage the recent surge of adults and children seeking illegal and often unsafe pathways into the United States.

The White House proposal, which senior officials predicted will gain bipartisan support on Capitol Hill, is a budgetary umbrella for immigration policy changes the president seeks from Congress along a separate but related legislative track.

Most prominently, the administration discussed two goals on Tuesday. The first is to utilize emergency funding, if granted by Congress, to hasten the case-by-case determinations of whether migrants have “legitimate humanitarian claims” to remain in the United States, or must be returned to their home countries if they do not. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest has said federal data indicates that most such claims are denied and those individuals, including unaccompanied children, are expected to be repatriated to their countries of origin.

“We’re taking an aggressive approach on both sides of the border,” a senior White House official told reporters. “People will be returned to the region.”

House Speaker John Boehner issued a muted response to the administration’s budget package. “The Appropriations Committee and other members, including the working group on the border crisis … will review the White House proposal,” Boehner aide Michael Steel said in a statement. “The Speaker still supports deploying the National Guard to provide humanitarian support in the affected areas, which [Obama’s] proposal does not address.”

The administration seeks to speed “the process of removal” in multiple ways, especially to reduce the need to detain unaccompanied minors for long periods during the judicial review assessment -- a process that often prompts the government by law to release minors into the care of relatives in the United States, often for years. For example, the administration has elected to triage migrant cases, “prioritizing” the processing of “recent border-crossers.”

Some of the emergency funding Obama seeks would expand government detention facilities and capacity, and some additional money would pay for more ankle-bracelet monitoring devices, which White House officials believe compel migrants and their families to return for federal status hearings if they are not being held in federal detention facilities until their status is decided.

As part of the administration’s $3.7 billion total request to Congress, the president seeks $1.8 billion for the Department of Health and Human Services, which cares for unaccompanied minors, and $1.1 billion for the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement. For DHS’s Customs and Border Protection service, Obama seeks $433 million, and for the State Department, the White House is asking for another $300 million.

For the Justice Department, Obama seeks a total of $64 million. The president wants to pad his DOJ budget request for fiscal 2015 by $45.4 million to hire an additional 40 immigration judge “teams” on a temporary basis, on top of the 35 he already requested. The White House said a total of 75 such teams could allow the government to process between 55,000 and 75,000 more migrant cases annually. It is unclear how much time would be needed to recruit and hire new immigration judges, even on a temporary basis.   

A second and significant policy change would eliminate the difference in current law between how the government handles migrants arriving from Central America -- individuals who may seek asylum in the United States because of oppression and the threat of violence in their countries -- and the treatment allowed by law at the border for illegal immigrants from Mexico and Canada. The law makes it easier to swiftly ship migrants arriving from the latter two nations back home.

“There really isn’t a policy rationale for treating them differently,” a senior White House official told reporters during a background call Tuesday. The president wants to eliminate that differential and has pledged to work with Congress on separate legislation that would amend a 2008 law adopted without controversy, and aimed at curbing human trafficking.

If Congress doesn’t go along, a White House official said the president would act alone, if necessary, to use executive discretion to deal with events the administration terms a “humanitarian crisis.”

“We'll always start with the bedrock requirement that we're going to enforce the law as it exists,” Earnest said Monday. “We're also seeking additional authority from Congress that can be given to the secretary of homeland security to exercise some discretion to more promptly remove children [who are] found through the court process [not to] have a legal basis for remaining in this country.”

As Obama readies his next request to Congress -- for what the White House calls statutory “flexibility” to respond through tough enforcement -- immigration reform advocacy groups also expect the president to head in a more welcoming direction for immigration changes, using his executive authority.

They expect the president to keep his recent vow to rebuke Congress for failing to adopt comprehensive immigration reform legislation this year by using his executive heft to protect some of the 11 million undocumented immigrants already in the country. Obama said he wants to weigh his options at the end of the summer.

But first, the administration wants Congress to help purge asylum-seekers, including about 52,000 unaccompanied minor children apprehended at the southwestern border, most of them from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. The administration says the surge in young migrants has been exacerbated by backlogs in processing asylum claims, which can take so long that Central American children crossing the border illegally are encouraged to shelter with family members in the United States -- most of them undocumented -- and never get sent home.

The administration now blames the sex trafficking law signed by President George W. Bush, as well as unscrupulous crime rings in Central America, for the surge in children crossing into the United States without adults.

Advocates for immigrants say they worry that Obama’s get-tough message about expelling children at the border may clash with his vow to expand ways to keep undocumented immigrant families together once they are in the United States. The president has been harshly criticized by Latinos and advocacy groups for his expansive record of deportations.

Benjamin Johnson, executive director of the American Immigration Council, told RCP Monday that “it’s a horrible mistake” to crack down on asylum-seekers as a technique to deter Central American families from seeking to better their lives in the United States.  “We can’t respond by trying to process people in a matter of days, to use them as human messengers,” he said.  

Immigrant advocates believe Obama’s invitation to Congress for statutory changes to existing law this year may prove politically risky, and could divide Democrats in a midterm election year, muddle the arguments for “comprehensive” reforms, and widen the border enforcement debate many Republican lawmakers favor.

“It would be very, very sad if the only thing Congress can manage to pass [in 2014] is the removal of unaccompanied minors,” said Johnson said. “I think it’s a mistake for the administration to assume they can control this legislative process.”

Johnson and his group were among those invited to the White House recently to discuss policy options with Obama, Vice President Biden and senior advisers.

Obama plans to headline Democratic fundraisers in Denver, Dallas and Austin this week, and does not believe it is necessary to personally tour any Texas border facilities as part of the administration’s response to the crisis, his spokesman said. The president will focus his public remarks on the recovering economy, spotlighting anecdotes shared by middle-class families who wrote to him about their economic circumstances.

But as an add-on to his Dallas schedule, Obama offered Monday to meet with Gov. Rick Perry as part of a hastily planned roundtable discussion Wednesday on immigration issues, including border security concerns. A senior White House official said Tuesday morning the president’s staff had “not heard back” from Perry’s office, and Perry’s spokesman said a response was in the works. 

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

President Obama "Blew It" -- Again
Tom Bevan · December 3, 2014
Lessons for Obama in a Still Relevant 1964 Text
Peter Berkowitz · December 16, 2014
Job Numbers Give Obama Reason to Smile
Alexis Simendinger · December 5, 2014
White House Goes on Offense After Immigration Vote
Alexis Simendinger · December 4, 2014

Alexis Simendinger

Author Archive

Follow Real Clear Politics

Latest On Twitter